TOKYO– Japan’s parliament on Saturday enacted a law aimed at curbing malicious solicitations for donations by religious and other groups, which mainly targets the Unification Church, whose fundraising tactics and close ties to the ruling party caused public outrage.
The South Korea-based religious group’s decades-long ties to Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party surfaced after the July assassination of former leader Shinzo Abe. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, whose support ratings plummeted, sought to calm public fury over his handling of the scandal and replaced three Cabinet ministers – one over his ties to the church, another over a gaffe capital punishment and a third on problems of political financing.
The new law, approved during this year’s closing parliamentary session, allows believers, other donors and their families to seek the return of their money and prohibits religious groups and other organizations from coercively soliciting funds, threats or tying gifts to spiritual salvation.
Kishida, who heard from former adherents, described their suffering as “appalling” and hailed the law as a bipartisan effort to help victims and their families.
Passing the law was one of Kishida’s top priorities, which also included Japan’s new national security strategy and defense policy to achieve a substantial buildup of its military over the next five years.
Kishida, who earlier this week set five-year defense spending targets of 43 trillion yen ($316 billion), said his government would need an additional 4 trillion yen ($30 billion). ) per year. Of that amount, a quarter will have to be funded through tax increases, Kishida said.
On Saturday, Kishida said Japan must continue to build up its military might beyond the next five years. He said a planned tax increase would be phased in from 2024 and income tax would not be increased. He said he was against issuing government bonds to cover the defense increase.
“We need to secure the funding source to build our defense power for our future,” Kishida said. “It is our responsibility for future generations.”
A revised national security strategy, due to be released later this month, would allow Japan to develop a preemptive strike capability and deploy long-range missiles. This marks a major and controversial shift from Japan’s self-defense policy adopted after its defeat in World War II in 1945.
“Our current project will involve a major shift in our national security and finance policies,” Kishida said.
The suspect who shot and killed Abe at an outdoor campaign rally in July told police he was targeting the former prime minister because of his Unification Church links. A letter and social media posts attributed to the suspect said his mother’s large donations to the church bankrupted his family and ruined his life.
A police investigation revealed widespread links between the church and members of the ruling party over common interests in anti-communist and conservative causes.
The case has also brought to light the suffering of the children of church devotees, including some who say they were forced to join the church or were left in poverty or neglected by their parents’ devotion. Many critics consider the church a cult because of the financial and mental hardships faced by worshipers and their families.
The Ministry of Education, which is responsible for religious matters, has officially opened an investigation into the church. This could potentially lead to a court ruling revoking the group’s legal status, although the church may continue its religious activity.
The Department of Health and Social Care is separately investigating questionable adoptions involving hundreds of children among church congregants.
Opposition lawmakers who have proposed tougher measures have accused Kishida of being lax and slow because his party’s coalition partner, Komeito, is backed by the Buddhist sect Soka Gakkai.
Some experts say the law lacks teeth, including donation limits, protection for children of church members and consideration for those who may have been brainwashed into joining the group and making large donations.
Kishida said he had no ties to the church and promised his party would cut all such ties.
The Unification Church, founded in South Korea in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon, gained legal status as a religious organization in Japan in 1968 amid an anti-communist movement backed by Abe’s grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.
Since the 1980s, the church has been accused of underhanded business and recruiting tactics, including brainwashing members into making huge donations to Moon, often ruining their finances and their families.
The group has acknowledged cases of “excessive” donations, but says the problem has since been mitigated for more than a decade and recently promised further reforms.
Experts say Japanese worshipers are being asked to pay for the sins committed by their ancestors during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule on the Korean Peninsula, and the majority of the church’s global funding comes from Japan.